Monthly Archives: November 2013

‘That Burning Summer’ by Lydia Syson and stories we can trust


Here is another two part blog post.

Part One

I think the best historical novels are the ones where you find yourself in a historical period you think you know, and by the time you close the book you realise that you have just been told a story you had never come across before.

I feel like this about Lydia Syson’s books, both published by Hot Key Books. Her first one, ‘A World Between Us’, was about the Spanish Civil War, and I think that anyone studying that period should read it; they would learn lots about a relatively recent period of European history AND really enjoy a wonderful, very moving story, with love and bravery and a satisfying ending.

I read Lydia Syson’s brilliant second book ‘That Burning Summer’ today. It is set in 1940 on the Kent coast, and tells us of a time when many British people felt they would be invaded. This reminds me of the recent BBC ‘Imagine’ documentary about the illustrator Judith Kerr where we learnt that her refugee parents were given suicide pills by a doctor friend so that they, as known Jewish critics of Hitler, could take them should the Nazis invade. Lydia Syson re-creates the fearful atmosphere so well, and I learnt things both about Britain and about Poland and the Polish airforce that I had not known before.

But this is not really doing ‘That Burning Summer’ justice. I loved it because as well as being so fascinating in terms of its historical details, Lydia Syson’s writing itself is wonderful. Her characters are so well drawn and believable and at times with both these books it was almost unbearable waiting to see what was going to happen to them. I don’t want to say too much in case I spoil the reading experience – but all I can say is – buy both Lydia Syson’s books – give them as Christmas or New Year presents – or treat yourself (I did!)

Sorry I can’t manage to put the covers up – they are lovely, so look at the websites!


Part Two

I am trying to learn not to get overly involved with my children’s arguments. I tend to wade in, urging people to apologise or accept apologies, and then I get the outraged response from everyone involved that I don’t know the whole story, and many, often contradictory, ‘eye-witness’ accounts. It’s even worse when they are cross with me about something I have said, or done, and I find half way through indignantly defending myself, or laughing nervously (which makes them even crosser) that I have actually forgotten what I did or said in the first place. (I haven’t always forgetten, however, and, sadly, I am not always in the right. Although, if my children are reading this, I would like to point out that I very often AM. Ahem. Back to the blog post…) Anyway, we tend to work it out in the end, because we do basically love each other, even if we can drive each other mad.

If working out the truth of events that have happened in my own home barely minutes after  they took place, is tricky, then it is not surprising that history is a complex subject. It helps when we have skilful novelists like Lydia Syson to help show us the human side of events, when our sympathy is evoked by brilliant characterisation and story telling but we don’t get easy answers or a simplification of the issues involved.

That is why I distrust oversimplified versions of history or current affairs. I distrust and reject the over simplified descriptions of ‘what is wrong’ with this country that we find in our media today, or sweeping generalisations about people on the basis of their religion, or ethnicity, or nationality, or sexuality, or  wealth, or age, or skin colour, or health, or employment status, or  I.Q. points. I don’t want our children to be told those types of stories. I don’t want to listen to them or tell them myself. And I am so glad there are wonderful writers like Lydia Syson who refuse to give us ‘simple’ history, yet leave us with a sense that, with all the complexity of life, we should not rush to judge others as we will never know their whole story, and that some things, like Love and Forgiveness, are more important than others.


‘Close Your Pretty Eyes’ by Sally Nicholls – but let’s not close ours in real life.

Monday 25th November 2013


Hello. This is a two part blog post today.

If you haven’t read ‘Close your Pretty Eyes’ by Sally Nicholls you may want to skip the short first bit in case it spoils your read, although I won’t be re-telling the story.

Part 1

First Bit you may need to skip whilst you rush to order the book so you can read it yourself

Or please go to your library or nearest independent bookshop.

I am sorry I am not technically adept enough to have managed to post an actual picture of a cover here! Hopefully I can get some tips on this and edit this post later.


This weekend I finished ‘Close your pretty eyes’ by Sally Nicholls.  It wasn’t perhaps the best choice for cosy bedtime reading but what a fantastic writer she is!

The unreliable narrator, Olivia, is an 11 year old from a very abusive background. She has suffered at the hands of her mother (I found that so hard to read) and a criminally cruel foster carer (horrible), and successive family placements have been a disaster. She has been separated from her baby brother and her sister and feels that she is evil and unlovable. It is clear, even reading the book from her viewpoint, that she is a nightmare to deal with. This is one seriously disturbed little girl, and many well meaning adults have been defeated by her.

I had only one quibble with the book, which is that I did not really understand why a sensible good foster carer would have a photograph of an evil convicted Victorian baby killer who had lived in his home on display in his house. Olivia’s obsession with this woman provides an engrossing and powerful subplot, but I wish she had come across the photo somewhere else.

HOWEVER, apart from that, I cannot stress enough the astonishing quality of Sally Nicholl’s writing, and I will never ever forget Olivia. This book made me physically ache with pain for her, and yet it was never sentimental or trite, and the ending was heartbreakingly true to life. This is one brilliant writer and this is an absolutely amazing book, even with the earlier quibble. Buy it from a bookshop or borrow it from a library, with the warning that it has stupendous writing about very upsetting subject matter.

Part 2

I knew before I read this book that I would not be a person who could cope with a real-life Olivia. As a reader I cared for her but in real life I would be more like the failed foster carers Sally describes. I really admire people like Liz in the story who do know how to work with such a disturbed child.   My husband and his colleagues do this in real life.

My husband works as a teacher of Design and Technology and Art in a Pupil Referral Unit for children who have been excluded from school.  There are children there who, like Olivia, have flashbacks to terrible abuse and behave violently,  who are school phobics, or who cannot cope in ordinary schools because they have special educational needs, or are children who have been excluded because of terrible behaviour which can often be directly linked to extremely unstable home lives. My husband is a very calm person who does not take it personally when the pupils swear at him when he suggests a new design technology or art project. He expects them to tell him that it is all rubbish, that he is rubbish, because they think they are rubbish. He understands they have very low self esteem and a terrible fear of failure, and then takes great satisfaction from quietly and steadily refusing to give up until they have made something they are proud of. And they do, against all odds, often (but not always) make wonderful things. They make tables and mirror stands and painted masks and collages, and one girl in particular, a school phobic, went back to her school and settled back in well with a new ambition to be a carpenter.  It took an awful lot of work to get her to that point – but she got there.

Olivia’s  experiences of abuse are, sadly and horrifically, not only found in fiction. These children are, as Sally Nicholls so skilfully shows, extremely difficult to deal with, but they are in great emotional pain and need and deserve help. The work of people like my husband and the teachers and teaching assistants he works with is amazing. The work of the social workers and specialised police officers who work with them is very hard but worthwhile. Shockingly, not everyone thinks so. Too many people dismiss the behaviour of children like Olivia as ‘naughtiness’ and think they need ‘short, sharp shocks’. Suddenly, inappropriate, morally loaded language is used. People in the public eye consider such children worthless and ‘bad’. They resent money being spent on them. My husband and his colleagues and fellow professionals know that what children like Olivia need is consistent long term help, long, skilled, loving, complex support, but that is expensive, and that, these days means everything. Their Pupil Referral Unit has been under constant threat of closure in spite of the police, amongst others, testifying to how effective they have been in turning children’s lives around or at least making damaged children a little less damaged.

I can’t do the job that my husband does, but I can support him. I don’t have the personal skills to adopt a child as wounded as Olivia, but I can insist that my taxes are well used to support her, and others like her, educationally and emotionally and that we do not penny pinch when employing people to do this. It appalls me that in this country today companies are bidding to provide the cheapest children’s services to different councils. I have a friend who works for a council who has been told she cannot legally comment on the fact that a very rich and notorious company with an appalling public record both in compassion and efficiency is bidding to take over children’s services in her area.  A lot of LAs buy from this company because it is very aggressively developing services across the country and they are desperate to place people & there are not enough services…(it’s complicated). The company concerned  has been in the news with the use of inappropriate methods of restraint in adult services, and there are concerns with its involvement with other vulnerable people. This company, which my friend is not legally allowed to comment on because of her employment in the council, has been reprimanded in public  for colossal expansive organisational inefficiency in other areas apart from children’s services, and yet they are tendering to look after vulnerable children with no families to stick up for them. Judging from their consistent extraordinary success in getting lucrative contracts in spite of frequently being in the news for doing very badly, they may well win this bid. We must not let such things go unchallenged.

Some of us cannot do the work of the fictional Helen or Liz, or the work of my husband and his colleagues, social workers and police, fosterers and adopters in real life. Some of us could never cope with Olivia, even if Sally Nicholl’s skill enables us to empathise more with her than we could ever have thought possible. But what we can do is make sure that these children are looked after by well qualified people and not dismissed or given cut price services. Olivia may be an unreliable narrator, but we can decide to be reliable narrators of a different, kinder story for them and try to give these seriously hurt children the education and support they need. Please keep an eye on the press and be aware of the services that are being cut – demand to know who is providing the complex education and care for these children – as if we don’t remind the government they are worth it, then, apart from wonderful writers like Sally Nicholls, who will?